JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Being considered the next Deebo Samuel is the hot thing in the NFL right now.
When a player has the skill set to be a playmaker as a running back and a receiver, the default assumption seems to be that teams should use that dual threat just like the San Francisco 49ers have deployed Samuel by moving him all over the formation to get him the ball as a receiver who also takes handoffs.
That’s certainly the case with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ versatile pass-catching running back Travis Etienne Jr., who is completely healed from the Lisfranc injury that cost him his rookie season in 2021 and who looked smooth and fast during the team’s organized team activities this spring .
But that’s wrong.
The better plan would be to use Etienne the same way the New Orleans Saints use Alvin Kamara, as a running back featured in the pass game.
“Whatever’s going to give us the best opportunity to put Travis in positions to succeed is what we’re going to do, whether that’s him as a receiver coming in the backfield or as a running back leaving the backfield to be a receiver,” Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor said. “Whatever that may be, I think that kind of evolves as the season goes, or week by week even, really.”
Nobody in the NFL has been a better dual threat over the past five seasons than Kamara. Since he entered the league in 2017 as a third-round pick out of Tennessee, he’s had the most catches (373) and receiving yards (3,263) by a running back, scored the most touchdowns of any player (68), and his 7,501 yards from scrimmage trail only Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (7,636).
Kamara’s role didn’t need to evolve, because the Saints featured him heavily in the run and pass games immediately in 2017. He was second on the team in rushing (728 yards), receptions (81) and receiving yards (826) and was the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. That season, Mark Ingram II was the Saints’ featured back, rushing for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, and receiver Michael Thomas caught 104 passes for 1,245 yards.
Etienne is in a similar situation in Jacksonville.
Running back James Robinson is coming off a torn Achilles but is expected to be cleared during training camp, and he’s the Jaguars’ No. 1 back. The Jaguars don’t have a receiver like Thomas, but they did sign Christian Kirk in free agency to be the team’s No. 1 receiver. Taylor and head coach Doug Pederson also have said they want to put Etienne in different spots and get him the ball as much as possible.
Etienne, who hasn’t played in a game that mattered since Clemson’s College Football Playoff semifinal loss on Jan. 1, 2021, can’t wait.
“I’m sure they plan on getting the ball in my hands,” Etienne said. “I feel like I’m a special player with the ball in my hands.
“… I feel like I definitely have the [physical skills] to do that. I feel like, for me, the biggest thing I want to do is get out there Week 1, tear it up, and just be myself again, honestly. However coach wants to use me, I’m willing to do it. I just want to help the team win games.”
Not using Etienne the way the Saints use Kamara would almost be irresponsible.
The team drafted him 25th overall in 2021 because they needed some explosiveness in what had been a pedestrian offense. The Jaguars were last in the NFL with 16 combined rushes of 20 or more yards and pass plays of 30 or more yards in 2020, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Especially since Etienne was one of the most explosive players in the country during his four-year career at Clemson. He led all players in the NCAA with 55 runs of 20 or more yards from 2017 to 2020, rushing for 2,053 yards and 21 touchdowns — averaging 37.3 yards per rush on those big plays. Etienne also had six receptions of 30 or more yards, giving him 61 explosive plays.
When Etienne went down with his foot injury during a preseason game against New Orleans on Aug. 23, it took away the Jaguars’ only big-play threat. The team was actually worse last season than it was in 2020 — 15 explosive plays (runs of 20 or more yards, receptions of 30 or more yards), one fewer than they had in 2020 despite playing an additional game, per ESPN Stats & Info — and the offense averaged a league-worst 13.8 points per game.
The hope is Etienne’s return makes a significant difference. It’s still early, but the Jaguars are encouraged.
“Gosh, it’s just exciting to get him out here and get him on the grass this whole offseason and really work with him,” Pederson said. “He’s doing a great job handling a lot of information we’re throwing at the guys and putting him in different spots. [We’re] just seeing what he can do right now.”
Etienne’s speed is what stands out: He ran 4.40 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day at Clemson, and it doesn’t appear the Lisfranc injury has impacted that. He looked as quick as he did when he was a rookie during the team’s OTAs, and that has Taylor eager to figure out ways to get some mismatches for him to exploit.
“The speed’s real,” Taylor said. “I mean that was obviously something everybody knew coming out of college not having a chance to see a lot of the stuff he was able to do last year because he wasn’t able to play, so the speed’s very real. He did a good job of just showing understanding of the different roles we’re trying to see. We’re throwing him in all different positions just to see what he’s comfortable with, what he needs to work on as we move forward, give him plans moving further into summer coming back for training camp.
“But he’s been really receptive to everything. He’s shown an ability to grasp a lot of different things and show that he’s capable of doing things.”
Maybe even Kamara-type things.